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Opening arguments began on Monday for the trial of three former police officers who were part of the arrest of George Floyd when he was killed by fellow officer Derek Chauvin in June 2020.
WATCH: What role did the 3 other cops play in George Floyd’s murder?
Unlike the criminal case that resulted in Chauvin’s conviction for murder in a state court last year, the trial of the three officers – Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng – is a federal civil rights case and will be more complex in many ways because prosecutors must prove the officers were obligated to prevent Floyd’s death, or offer medical attention and willfully did not. It could also have implications for how police officers are expected to intervene in future cases of police misconduct or brutality.
In this trial, Thao, Lane and Kueng face federal civil rights violation charges. These are criminal charges and the trio could face life in prison if convicted. Unlike charges such as murder or assault–the sort of cases most people understand to be crimes–these charges are brought by the federal government, which oversees civil rights crimes. Chauvin has already pleaded guilty to one federal charge of willfully depriving Floyd of his right to be free from unreasonable seizure.
Unlike the state trial of Chauvin, who was found to have murdered Floyd by kneeling on his neck, Thao, Lane and Kueng are charged with not acting, said Rachel Moran, an associate professor at University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.
“This trial is about what the officers didn’t do while Derek Chauvin was murdering George Floyd. They didn’t intervene and they didn’t provide medical assistance,” Moran said.
Each officer faces the charge of willfully depriving Floyd of medical assistance, and Thao and Kueng face an additional charge of depriving Floyd of his right to be free from unreasonable seizure by not intervening as Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes.
It is not yet clear why Lane – who was on his fourth day as a Minneapolis police officer – wasn’t charged with the second crime, but video shows he twice asked Chauvin if they should turn Floyd on his side.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have reason to invoke Chauvin during the course of the trial, Angi Porter of the Georgetown University Law Center told the PBS NewsHour. The police officers’ lawyers may say that they were subordinate to Chauvin and note that he was the field training officer, she added.
At the same time, prosecutors will also use Chauvin’s plea in his federal case.
“As part of his plea, [Chauvin] said he didn’t force these other three to do anything, or to not do anything. And so [the defense is] going to have to contend with that,” Porter said.
Prosecutors have to clear the bar of showing that the officers’ lack of action directly resulted in Floyd’s death. Moran said the prosecution will likely point to similar witness testimony as in Chauvin’s trial, and argue it was clear that Floyd was in need of medical help.
There is also the possibility that, as part of each officer’s defense, Thao, Lane and Kueng might try to implicate each other as having had more responsibility for Floyd’s death, Moran said.
“They might point the finger a little bit at each other too. Tou Thao was the crowd control person. He’s going to say, ‘My back was turned, I wasn’t involved, I’m not responsible.’ So he might point the finger even at Kueng and Lane and say, ‘This has nothing to do with me. Like even if all three of the others were involved, I’m not’,” Moran said.
The federal trial is unlikely to be the end of the legal challenges for Thao, Lane and Kueng in the death of Floyd. They have also been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter by the state of Minnesota– that trial has been postponed until June.
Federal prosecutors have not publicly explained exactly why they have pursued these charges, Moran said. But it is true that an additional trial means there’s an additional chance for a conviction. All four officers were charged with crimes by the state of Minnesota, but if, for example, Chauvin had been acquitted of those charges, he still would have had to face the federal criminal charges against him. The same goes for Thao, Lane and Kueng.
There’s no question that the politics of the current federal administration affect the types of cases that are investigated, said Georgetown Law Professor from Practice Christy Lopez.
Moran said the politics of a case and the party in power can also influence federal civil rights charges, including whether police are charged in each case.
“It really depends on the administration and how they’re staffing their civil rights departments, or how they’re putting political pressure on local U.S. attorneys,” she said. “In the Trump era, we didn’t see much of this at all. Now it’s still a little bit early in the Biden administration to know.”
Another reason the federal government is involved is because these charges are specific to the Department of Justice, which has the authority to prosecute crimes that address people’s constitutional civil rights. That includes George Floyd’s right to not have excessive force used against him and his right to medical care from police officers when he needed it.
Despite this, the trial of Thao, Lane and Kueng is unusual as the federal government rarely prosecutes civil rights violation charges in the case of police officers, Moran said.
She said that the last time the DOJ pursued a civil rights trial was in the case of Michael Slager, the white police officer who in 2015 pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge for the shooting of Black motorist Walter Scott in the back five times. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2017.
Another notable example is the case of Rodney King, who was beaten by four Los Angeles police officers in 1992. In the case brought by the federal government, two officers, including a sergeant, were indicted and eventually pleaded guilty to violating King’s civil rights. They served 30 months in prison.
Lopez said it’s even rarer for junior officers to be prosecuted for civil rights violations by not intervening when a superior officer is committing a crime. Lopez said this is the first such case that she is aware of.
Depending on the outcome, the case could have major ramifications for how police officers are expected to intervene when another officer is violating a person’s rights, Lopez said.
“It really would send a message that you can be held accountable in the most severe form of accountability we have in our society — criminal accountability, not civil liability, not an [internal affairs] investigation, criminal liability — not only for committing wrongdoing yourself or abusing someone’s rights yourself, but for failing to keep another officer from doing that,” Lopez said.
“That actually is a big message and is an important message, and it’s a new message. It has never – literally never – been spoken at this level when it comes to peer officers or superior officers. So I actually think this particular trial has the potential to have a broader impact, much more so than most criminal trials of police officers.”
This trial could also incentivize police departments to increase their bystander training programs and motivate them to reward officers who do step in when they see police misconduct, Lopez said. This also comes at a time when the nation is in the midst of a reckoning on race and police brutality, sparked in large part by the killing of George Floyd.
But it’s still too early to tell whether this trial signals a permanent change in the prosecution of police officers, Lopez said, or whether the death of George Floyd was an “extraordinary incident.”
“Which of those two directions it goes might depend on the outcome of this particular trial,” she said. “If they get guilty verdicts here, then I think that makes it more likely that they’ll bring similar prosecutions in the future. If they don’t it just underscores how difficult they are.”
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